On October 1st, 2020, China – along with other Asian countries – celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is characterized by the dessert consumed during this festivity: mooncakes. This sweet treat has been a staple in Chinese culture, while at the same time has been contributing to its rising economy for decades. But, are the new generations going to change this tradition?
Holidays and celebrations are a big part of Chinese culture, and undeniably a boost to its economy. These celebrations are passed down to generations by their grandparents, and they represent traditions and superstitions believed by ancestors thousands of years ago. The second most important Chinese holiday after Chinese New Year is the day of the Mid-autumn Festival. This festival is now celebrated by the new generations as an act of respect and acknowledgment of their roots. More than 2,000 years ago, the Chinese emperors celebrated this festival in devotion to thanking the gods for the autumn harvest. They celebrate this festival on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar. This year, this festival will be celebrated on October 1st. This holiday could be considered the Thanksgiving of the Asian-side of the world.
The day of the Mid-autumn Festival is customarily thought to be propitious for weddings, as the moon goddess is believed to “extend conjugal bliss to couples”. This holiday is not only celebrated in mainland China; countries like Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and South Korea celebrate it as well. Families across the world also commemorate this day by gathering and having dinner together. A study published by CGTN, China Global Television Network, showed that from 2018 to 2019, the Mid-autumn festival was ranked as the second “hot spot” holiday for consumption in China.
As it happens during Thanksgiving with turkey in the United States and Panettone in Italy during Christmas, the demand of the traditional mooncakes, usually reaches sky-high digits. The same study made by CGNT showed that mooncakes sales increased by about 135% year on year. Nowadays, due to the change in tastes and the opening of China to the western world, mooncakes have a variety of fillings that are somehow less traditional and more “westernized”. Mooncakes are so famous that, for the past 20 years, Haagen-Dazs has made ice cream mooncakes sold in China during the holiday, and even Oreo started making a version of mooncake, replacing the lotus paste fillings with flavors such as double chocolate.
Even though these mooncakes have a wide variety of flavors, their consumption has been decreasing. Including falling popularity as gifts and a rise in health awareness, mooncake supply mooncake supply is now outpacing their consumption by the younger generations. Even though the study made by CGTN showed that 56% of the consumers are aged 30-39 years old, another study made in 2017 by The Standard, Honk Kong’s biggest circulation free English newspaper, revealed that more than 1.5 million mooncakes were thrown away after the celebration of the Mid-Autumn festival in 2016, which shows that younger generations are in need of a change in the mooncake culture to engage in their consumption again. Despite demand and supply of mooncakes remaining in a quite stable equilibrium, they are thrown away eventually. The study made by The Standard also found out that each Chinese family of the ones surveyed ate an average of 7.21 mooncakes and threw away 0.64.
When asked, consumers listed multiple reasons for throwing away purchases mooncakes. The reasons included the fact that a mooncake is over 800 calories, or that they received more mooncakes than they can eat in a year. Despite all the data given regarding the decrease of consumption, the survey still found out that on average, each respondent will purchase 2.67 boxes of mooncakes. This is creating a huge waste, the study found out that enough mooncakes to fill 18 basketball courts were thrown away in 2016. The high supply and demand that the mooncake market in China works with, along with the decline in consumption is creating a huge waste problem. But, could this mean demand will drop as well?
With all of this in mind and after all the research made, I am adventurous enough lay down some hypothesis. Living in shanghai for 1 year, I was exposed to the strategy behind mooncake sales: their sale doesn’t take place on an individual level, as they are sold in units. Since mooncakes are traditionally given as gifts from a family to another, these companies usually spend a lot of their resources on packaging and decorations, where they organize 10,15,20 or more of these mooncakes in boxes ready to sell. This increases their price, leaving the company with a surplus of returns as well.
It would be naïve of me to think that companies are going to cut their profits in order to help decrease the number of mooncakes thrown away. But I believe that since consumption is decreasing, soon the demand will start decreasing if the companies don’t change the product. Generation Z is very conscious when it comes to food waste. We are aware that if we don’t change and become more environmental-friendly and take care of our planet, we might end up causing an irreversible damage to planet Earth. If companies producing mooncakes don’t solve this problem, we might even stop buying them overall.
We are also driven by a domineering health culture. If these companies expect to survive in the future, they should start re-modeling their mooncakes by expanding their markets. Although some have started doing this, more companies should look into innovating new flavors which can be more inclusive, such as vegan, gluten-free or sugar-free mooncakes.
On the other hand, China’s youth population is distancing from their family traditions now that the country is becoming more industrialized and westernized. The majority of Chinese students that attended my university in Shanghai were from the countryside, but they had moved to the urban centers their own in order to receive a better education and broaden their work opportunities in a very competitive country. They used to tell me that they would see their families once every two years, if the train ticket was not that expensive, in order to celebrate Chinese New Year. Although this is not the situation of all young adults in China, this is something the companies producing mooncakes should also bear in mind. It is clear that the majority of mooncakes are bought as a present in order to show appreciation and affection, but now that the majority of the youth are living away from their families, and knowing that their friends don’t like mooncakes, why would they buy them seeing that they are expensive and will not be consumed?
In the future, if these companies aren’t able to keep up with the preferences demanded by these younger generations, the demand for mooncakes will soon decline, and in a couple of years the mooncake market might disappear. China has always been very fond and proud of national festivals, but future generations might not be able to celebrate and enjoy them if these holidays don’t evolve. Evolution is part of humanity, society is constantly changing, and those who don’t keep up with these changes end up stuck in the past.
This is what evolving is all about, which is why we need to keep an eye on new trends and preferences in society in order to survive. Sometimes, traditions that have been present for thousands of years can come to an end in seconds, companies we thought were never going broke all of a sudden end up closing all their stores and calling for bankruptcy. Everything in life is temporary if it doesn’t keep up with the new generations. And it is our job to stay aware and on the game, or else we can end up living in a state of oblivion. It is time for companies to innovate and recreate these mooncakes in order to maintain the tradition alive.